By Gina Macris
Seven Hills Rhode Island and the union representing workers who assist some 250 adults with developmental disabilities have agreed to meet with a mediator in an attempt to settle a months-long labor dispute.
A union spokeswoman, Jeanne Jose, organizer for the United Nurses and Allied Professionals, said the first mediation session was Wednesday, Jan. 23, and the two sides agreed to meet again with a mediator next week. Earlier in the month, the union membership, about 200 to 220 employees, authorized the negotiating committee to call a strike, if needed, Jose said.
UNAP initially proposed a 5 percent increase in wages across the board, she said. More than half the membership makes $10.94 an hour, and a five percent increase would add about 55 cents to that rate. Thirty-nine per-diem employees, who are on call but receive no benefits, are paid $12.36 an hour. She said 12 behavioral assistants, who must have bachelor’s degrees, make $15.36 an hour.
In the most recent bargaining session in December, Jose said, management gave the union a choice: either an across-the-board increase of 13 cents an hour, or a 25-cent increase for those making $10.94 an hour and no raise for higher-paid union members.
Neither option is acceptable, she said. The union membership voted Jan. 9 to authorize the bargaining committee to call a walkout, if necessary..
Efforts to reach management, represented by Cliff R. Cabral, vice president of Seven Hills Rhode Island, have been unsuccessful.
Jose said the union also seeks to preserve health care benefits, which she described as “decent.” Employees pay 20 percent of costs, she said, but rising premiums have eroded take-home pay.
There are three other areas where the union wants improvements:
· An increase in reimbursement for transportation, from 40 cents to 45 cents a mile for direct care workers, who are required to use their own vehicles on the job. The standard reimbursement rate allowed by the Internal Revenue Service in 2018 was 54.5 cents a mile. For 2019, the IRS increased the rate to 58 cents an hour.
· Contract language that ensures employees will receive adequate training or re-training before they are tested or re-tested on protocols for dispensing medication to clients.
· Adequate staffing to ensure health and safety on an as-needed basis; for example, when someone who uses a wheelchair is too heavy for one worker to transfer from the chair to a car to go to a doctor’s appointment and return home.
UNAP has represented developmental disability workers at Seven Hills and its predecessor organizations since about 2005, Jose said. The last contract expired in June, 2018.
With direct support wages linked to government funding, the labor dispute underlines the gap between pay in Rhode Island and neighboring states for the same work.
In Connecticut, all direct care workers make $14.75 an hour, effective Jan. 1.
In Massacusetts, where they’re called Personal Care Attendants, those who belong to the Service Employees International Union make $15 an hour.
The minimum wage in Massachusetts is $12 an hour. In Rhode Island it is $10.50. Governor Gina Raimondo recently proposed raising the minimum wage to $11.10 an hour and a wage increase for direct care workers that would add about 44 cents an hour to their paychecks.
The trade association representing about two thirds of private providers of developmental disability services, including Seven Hills, has said the average entry-level wage among its member organizations is $11.36 an hour.
Seven Hills Rhode Island is affiliated with the Seven Hills Foundation, a multi-faceted human service agency which has a broad presence in Massachusetts.